04 February 2012

Christians Investing in our Planet

Sally Bingham worked to get solar panels on the roof of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. Sally Bingham worked to get solar panels on the roof of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703808904575025924209388434.mwo4ml

[This is the 4th and last installment of the series, “Earth Warming, Faith Rising?”]

If you go back to the trailer of the “Renewal” documentary mentioned at the end of the last blog, you will hear the voice of a doctor saying that strip-mining is the equivalent of raping the land – “it’s obscene, it’s a sin.” Then he adds, “Evangelicals are starting to recognize that environmental stewardship is a deeply moral and biblical issue.”

I will get back to the issue of Evangelicals and ecology in the last part of this piece. But this is an apt summary of the themes I’ll deal with here – caring for the earth is a profoundly moral issue. And, let me add, there is a lot more to it than just global warming.

Just as Muslims hail from very diverse cultures, theological positions and spiritual orientations, so in the same way Christians occupy many different points along a wide spectrum. In this blog I’ll pick the three most influential movements in the United States and pin point some who are truly “investing in our planet,” that is, who are taking concrete steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, to rein in different kinds of pollution that disproportionately injure the poor, and to find creative ways of bringing people into harmony with God’s good creation.

First we look at a fascinating interfaith initiative by an Episcopal priest and delightfully charismatic woman, Rev. Canon Sally Grover Bingham. Then we’ll move on to the Roman Catholic Church, then on the seismic shifts in the Evangelical community.

Sally Bingham and the Interfaith Power and Light

The Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) is a formidable machine of sociopolitical change. Already with 38 state affiliates, IPL is now helping over 14,000 US congregations across the religious landscape shrink the carbon footprint of their institutions and homes. Alongside this ecological advocacy and training, the IPL aims to leverage the passion of religious people …

1. to spark a wider movement for environmental awareness

2. to lobby for “public policies in the political arena to advance clean energy and to limit carbon pollution”

The first paragraph of its mission statement reads:

“The mission of Interfaith Power & Light is to be faithful stewards of Creation by responding to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. This campaign intends to protect the earth’s ecosystems, safeguard the health of all Creation, and ensure sufficient, sustainable energy for all.”

The IPL was launched in San Francisco at the Grace Cathedral in 1998 and quickly developed as a coalition of California Episcopal churches. Then in 2000 it widened its appeal to congregations of all faith traditions, sparking a movement that “helped pass California’s landmark climate and clean energy laws.” To date, California has the most stringent vehicle fuel efficiency standards. In January 2012 the state set the goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions and growing a fleet of 1.4 million zero emission vehicles by 2025 ( see businessgreen.com). IPL is likely the most influential faith-based NGO behind these tougher standard.

Much of the credit for these successes goes to Sally Bingham, the founder and president of the Regeneration Project, which spun off the IDL campaign. Due to her stellar achievements in the environmental field, she has received numerous honors, including three honorary doctorates. According to her bio, she was “named one of the top fifteen green religious leaders by Grist magazine, was written up in O Magazine, and has been recognized as a Climate Hero by Yes! Magazine.” She sits on the boards of the Environmental Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Finally, she gathered twenty other religious leaders to write a book with her in 2009, Love God, Heal Earth.

You might be asking, “how Christian is this project?” It’s Christian in the sense that the founder is a member of the clergy and that faith was the inspiration behind her own tireless efforts over the last couple of decades. But IPL is also by design an interfaith project – securing the participation of the widest possible spectrum of religious communities. Environmental issues have been high on the agenda of Mainline Protestant churches for decades now, with the US Roman Catholic Church not far behind. Sally Bingham’s genius was to cast the net much more widely, seeking to spur those who hadn’t either given the ecological crisis much thought, or hadn’t done much about it yet. The IPL mission statement addresses this priority:

“Global warming is one of the biggest threats facing humanity today. The very existence of life — life that religious people are called to protect — is jeopardized by our continued dependency on fossil fuels for energy. Every major religion has a mandate to care for Creation. We were given natural resources to sustain us, but we were also given the responsibility to act as good stewards and preserve life for future generations.”

Some Roman Catholic Initiatives

Since the 1970s a lay Catholic movement had been slowly gathering momentum in a quest to bring “an environmental ethic of stewardship” to the attention of church leaders. Then Pope John Paul II made this declaration in a 1990 message on the occasion of the World Day for Peace,

“The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions. . . . Today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone…. When the ecological crisis is set within the broader context of the search for peace within society, we can understand better the importance of giving attention to what the earth and its atmosphere are telling us: namely, that there is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral issue.”

This message (“Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation”) was a great boon to all the activists struggling in the shadows. It became the necessary launching pad for a reinvigorated campaign of environmental awareness and commitment in the wider Catholic communion. Then in 1993 the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a declaration, “Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching.” The following year, with help from the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, the USCCB established the Environmental Justice Program formed around the same time.

Meanwhile, small grants were given to those congregations and dioceses willing to implement projects on behalf of the poor threatened by environmental hazards, to reclaim dilapidated properties for green purposes, and to “advance new regulations on mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants” (catholicclimatecovenant.org).

Notice the unique contribution of Catholic social ethics to this wider faith-based coalition. The longstanding principle of the “preferential option for the poor” is clearly woven into this Catholic concern for those most devastated by the impact of industrial pollution and climate change. Hence the USCCB issued another pastoral letter in 2001, entitled, “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good.” This led in 2006 to the launching of the Catholic Coalition for Climate Change, bringing under its wing a dozen national Catholic organizations desiring to integrate ecological justice into their existing programs. As one might expect, this activist network was able to implement significant change at the parish and diocesan levels too.

Then on World Peace Day, exactly twenty years after John Paul II’s landmark address on faith and environment, Pope Benedict XVI chose to build directly on his predecessor’s legacy. Take note especially of the link he draws between creation care, social justice and peace:

“If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation…. Man’s inhumanity to man has given rise to numerous threats to peace…. Yet no less troubling are the threats arising from the neglect – if not downright misuse – of the earth and the natural goods that God has given us…. Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change … attention also needs to be paid to the world-wide problem of water and to the global water cycle system, which is of prime importance for life on earth and whose stability could be seriously jeopardized by climate change.”

Evangelical Clashes and Accomplishments

[For more details on this section, see my paper “Evangelicals and Ecology]

Evangelicals, by definition, have no centralized institutions like their Catholic brethren. The closest you come to the USCCB is the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which claims to speak for 45,000 congregations scattered across some forty conservative Protestant denominations. The watershed document on sociopolitical involvement for this group came in 2004, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility."

Three brief historical remarks will help you see why I use the word “watershed”:

1. Heirs of the “fundamentalist” movement of the 1920s (think of the “Scopes Trials”), evangelicals broke off from their inward-looking, bunker-mentality conservative Protestant brethren after WWII, mostly under the leadership of Billy Graham and Harold John Ockenga and under the banner of institutions like Fuller Theological Seminary. The newer label “evangelical” in this context implied more self-confidence about one’s faith and one’s ability to both evangelize and engage the wider culture intellectually.

2. A 2000 book by sociologist Christian Smith (Christian America: What Evangelicals Really Want) provided some useful data about US conservative Protestants (29% of the total population). Smith discovered that the best way to understand this population was to use the respondents’ self-identification in his survey work. This resulted in three overlapping groups: “evangelicals” (11.2 percent); “fundamentalists” (12.8 percent); and “members of conservative Protestant denominations.”

2. The birth of the Christian Right in 1979, sparked by the parallel efforts of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, marked the beginning of an evangelical/fundamentalist bid for political power. Yet with prominent organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council at the forefront, it was almost exclusively focused on overturning the Roe vs Wade ruling on abortion, reestablishing (Christian) prayers in public schools, and reversing the advance of gay and lesbian rights.

All along a minority view had been pushing for a wider evangelical agenda – in the words of the Sojourners’s website, an agenda of “racial and social justice,” “life and peace,” and “environmental stewardship.” Both Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action began their parallel movements in the early 1970s.

With all this as a backdrop, it does seem that the 2004 NAE document For the Health of the Nation was pivotal. Yet, for all its advocacy of Christian involvement in bettering all aspects of American society, it was nearly silent on environmental issues:

“Evangelicals may not always agree about policy, but we realize that we have many callings and commitments in common: commitments to the protection and well-being of families and children, of the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the unborn, of the persecuted and oppressed, and of the rest of the created order. While these issues do not exhaust the concerns of good government, they provide the platform for evangelicals to engage in common action.”

Only the phrase “the rest of the created order” hinted at some ecological awareness. Clearly, some powerful leaders in the movement opposed any language that might refer to global warming. While the “Christian Right” and the wider Republican establishment still officially repudiate the notion that climate change is either happening, or – Heaven forbid – might be caused by human behavior, a growing number of Evangelicals (and especially in the twenty-somethings bracket) are certain that environmental destruction is an urgent problem right now.

Behind the scenes – also going back to the 1970s – was the work of Calvin DeWitt, environmental scientist and founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), who in 2002 organized a church leaders conference in Oxford, UK, for the purpose of learning about the dangers of global warming by a panel of climate scientists. Four years later, this movement produced a landmark declaration, the Evangelical Climate Initiative. You can read its official statement, “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action.”

Of course, contrarians too have invested a lot of money and effort to refute what they consider a distortion of science by liberals – indeed, more than a religious question, this is about politics. For an example, see the Cornwall Alliance declaration.

Concluding words

At the end of these four blogs on faith and ecology, which I’ve called “Earth Warming, Faith Rising?”, some words of caution are in order. Despite the heartening momentum evident in all three circles considered in this piece (Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Evangelicals), there is still much apathy when it comes to “going green” in people’s personal lives and in the institutional ways of the church. As I see it, Rev. Sally Bingham’s grassroots, interfaith approach holds the most promise for actually educating us and getting us to shrink our carbon footprints (I confess my own foot-dragging in this area!). Also, I would add the Catholic emphasis on standing up for those most affected by pollution – it’s the poor and most often people of color who are the greatest victims of toxic landfills and industrial pollution. Sadly, Evangelicals at the moment are too divided to effect real change in the wider culture.

Some readers might have gathered from the last blog that Muslims worldwide are massively involved in environmental activism. That is not the case. Apart from the wrangling that has taken place in the halls of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, where political leaders barter back and forth and argue about who is going to dole out aid to the poorest countries most devastated by climate change; and apart from Indonesia where religious leaders have begun a grassroots campaign to curtail the abuses of big-business logging, mining and oil production – most Muslim countries have had to set economic development as their top priority (see Richard Foltz’ great article on “The Globalization of Muslim Environmentalism." Nevertheless, as I tried to show, there is definitely a movement afoot to put a sustainable environment on the agenda of Muslims worldwide.

Indeed, the earth is warming, and the faith of Muslims and Christians – whose teachings overlap so dramatically on God’s call for us to care for creation – is rising to meet this challenge, however slowly. Whatever our own faith or non-faith background, let each one of us do his or her part to protect and to share equitably the bountiful resources God’s earth holds for all of us. It is, after all, a “deeply moral issue” – a biblical and qur’anic imperative.